When I was a medium-size kid — 10, say — some well-meaning adult leaned on me to read a children’s book set in World War II called “The Little Fishes.” It was an experience that engendered a lifelong suspicion of novels that take place during the Second World War. The exact nature of this suspicion has changed over time; I no longer believe that the authors of these books wrote them in order to torture me. Now I find the setting suspicious because I think some writers use it expediently, to grant their characters depth and their plots tension without having to go to the trouble of building those elements themselves. It’s cake mix (albeit organic, virtuous cake mix) vs. baking from scratch.
“Girl in the Blue Coat,” by Monica Hesse, a reporter at The Washington Post, is set in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, in 1943 — in a city where the citizens are either collaborating, resisting or trying to keep their heads down and stay alive until the war’s end. In the latter group is our heroine, Hanneke, a black-market runner bearing a heavy burden of guilt about her boyfriend, Bas, killed in the Dutch armed forces’ doomed five-day stand against the German army in the spring of 1940.
Hanneke, we learn, is hardened by war. She’s out to save herself and her parents, and, knowing that compassion is the first step toward annihilation, she offers her neighbors and customers nothing more than black-market goods, no matter how desperate their straits. Because the book is written in the first person, Hanneke is the only authority we have, but she is absolutely firm on this point: She’s hard as nails. “Survival first. That’s my war motto. After Bas, it might be my life motto. Survival first, survival only.” What are we supposed to think, then, when not 12 pages later, Hanneke decides to imperil herself by setting out to find Mirjam, a Jewish girl who has mysteriously disappeared from the home where she was being hidden?
We’re supposed to think she’s a hero.
And she is. Anyone who would sacrifice her security in hopes of saving a Jew in Nazi-occupied territory is a hero. Anyone who hid a Jew, who tried to resist, who tried to help — they were all heroes. It’s a fact. It’s the truth.
That’s what’s troubling. There’s an automatic conferral of hero status on Hanneke the instant that she decides to find Mirjam. But “automatic” is not a really desirable word to describe a plot element because it means the same thing as “for no reason.” Why does Hanneke perform her abrupt about-face and undertake the perilous quest to find Mirjam, a girl she doesn’t know? Because she’s good. And why is she good? Because she’s helping a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Why is she helping the girl? Because she’s good.
You see the problem? The act creates the character instead of the character creating the act, which takes from us one of the central pleasures of reading — finding out what the characters will do. We know what Hanneke is going to do; she has to do it, because she’s good.
The only nail-biting part concerns whether Hanneke will succeed in her efforts. And here, “Girl in the Blue Coat” comes through. If Hanneke and her motivations are dubious, the unraveling of the mystery of Mirjam is intriguing and exciting. The chain of connection and detection that leads Hanneke through Amsterdam and into various moments of peril is taut and intelligent, and above all, the historical setting is rendered the way only an expert can do it.
The constant state of apprehension, the constant calculation of one’s chances, the constant assessment of the enemy’s temper — in short, the agonizing watchfulness required to stay alive similar in abused people everywhere — these elements are brilliantly vivid and felt.
A scene near the beginning of the book, in which Hanneke skillfully flirts with a German soldier to keep him from looking too closely in her bike basket, follows her thought processes intimately, allowing us a fascinating glimpse of the steely professional survivalist that’s been created by the Nazi occupation. It’s a powerful episode that creates a strong understanding both of Hanneke and the pressures under which she lives.
Annie Barrows is the author of the “Ivy & Bean” series and “The Truth According to Us,” and she is the co-author of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, Monica Hesse will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Monica Hesse
Little, Brown. 301 pp. $17.99